Helen Little, Assistant Curator of the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, delves into Lowry's links with France and looks at how Impressionism struck a chord with the young artist

Adolphe Valette, Novembre 1912, Manchester 1912
Adolphe Valette
Novembre 1912, Manchester 1912
Oil on board, 15.9 x 24 cm

In many ways Lowry is a curiously British phenomenon, yet part of his story is that in Manchester he made a vital connection with late-19th century French painting. A little known fact is that his work was exhibited earlier and more consistently in Paris – at the Salon d’Automne in particular – than in London. During the early 1930s Lowry even found his way into an elaborately illustrated French dictionary of contemporary artists where he was referred to as ‘Eleve de l’Ecole des Beaux Arts de Manchester at puis de Salford’ - a specialist in oil painting and drawings of industrial street scenes.

One of the ambitions of Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been to reveal how Lowry was introduced to Impressionism by his teacher at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette - a talented painter who advocated painting en plein air. A wonderful discovery one winter’s afternoon last year in Tate’s archive was this small but brilliant oil sketch by Valette dated 11 November 1912 in which the artist has set out to capture the light and atmosphere of Manchester’s urban fabric.

Although he would go on to find his own unique language, Lowry later recalled that he could not over-estimate the effect of the arrival of Valette, full of the French impressionists and aware of everything that was going on in Paris.

Maurice Utrillo, 'La Place du Tertre' circa 1910
Maurice Utrillo
La Place du Tertre circa 1910
Oil on canvas
support: 502 x 730 mm
frame: 704 x 935 x 80 mm
Presented by the Courtauld Fund Trustees 1926© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

The exhibition goes on to present a full breadth and beauty of modern life painting and demonstrates Lowry’s determination to make art out of the realities of the modern city, capturing the temporalities and instabilities of the urban experience. By presenting Lowry in the context of the some of the great nineteenth century artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Maurice Utrillo, as well as the modern British painters Charles Ginner and Harold Gilman, it becomes evident that what unites them is their continuous search for ways to depict the unlovely facts of the city’s edges and the landscape made by industrialisation.

One can appreciate how the atmospherics of Impressionism and its drive to keep painting alive by painting new urban subjects struck a chord with the young Lowry. And although the dream-like world of the Impressionists would prove inadequate for the gritty battle of life Lowry sought to capture in paint, the ambition of this legacy clearly resonates throughout his work.


The thing I noticed was that all the chimneys were going full blast. That indicates prosperity and wellbeing. Nobody seems to notice that Lowry is such an optimist that he underlines, again and again, the life and success of industry in his time. Today few of those chimneys are smoking, and the industrial North has suffered a great deal.

What an amazing eye Lowry had for the industrial north - its dark and dour urban landscapes and its stick-like humans who made it all possible. But I have a few questions: did Lowry paint these landscapes to reflect his own sense of isolation/desolation? In the whole exhibition there was only one painting dedicated to the surrounding rural areas (Cumberland landscape). Was he oblivious of natural beauty or did his palette of colour never extend to green and the depiction of trees and flowers?

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your response. There has been much speculation about the relationship between the subjects of Lowry's art and the artist's story of personal tragedy and loneliness. Whilst it is certainly true that there is never much green space in Lowry's street scenes and industrial landscapes he also loved the sea and nature and he regularly travelled to other, less industrialised areas of Britain such as Lytham where he holidayed as a child, the Derbyshire Moors and Cornwall, where he painted more naturalistic scenes of the open countryside. It's interesting to look at how he uses milky green to suggest the expansiveness of the countryside but I like to think that these paintings are reminders about nature's fragility in the face of human and industrial intervention. But like the French artists in the exhibition, Lowry's images share a deep unease about the present and his place in it - a defining characteristic of 'modern life'.